Controversy Over the Role of the Piano Accompanist

This week I came across several very passionate discussions of the same topic- and one which rarely hits the headlines- the role of the piano accompanist.
In a programme on BBC Radio 4 last week (sadly not archived) entitled “Am I too Soft?”, Susan Tomes, a highly successful British ensemble pianist, bemoaned the standard treatment of and attitude towards “the accompanist” in chamber music and art song recitals. As she explained, the repertoire is often as demanding for the pianist as it is for the violin, cello or voice. However the pianist often gets little attention or appreciation, even being described as ‘at the piano’, “as if it were a piece of furniture”, as she exclaimed!

I certainly identified with her perturbation, having spent many years as an accompanist, a term I grew to dislike as it only seemed to encourage a lack of regard from audience and sometimes fellow performers. Despite playing repertoire of equal difficulty and having to cope with many other challenges besides, such as wayward singers and dubious pianos, there were times when my presence was barely acknowledged. On one occasion my name was not in the programme, the singer was presented with a bouquet of flowers while I stood next to her on the stage empty handed and I subsequently didn’t make the review in the local paper either! In “Am I too soft?” the renowned accompanist Roger Vignoles describes an even more outrageous occasion when he and a well-known singer gave a concert at a major international arts festival which won an award as the most outstanding concert of the festival. He was astounded to discover that not only was the entire cash award given to the singer, but he was not even invited to the celebratory dinner which followed!

Following the example of the great Hartmut Holl (of whom more later), I began to describe myself simply as a pianist, an accurate and less maligned term. In terms of the profession itself, I loved it beyond measure. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to play so much great music with a wide variety of performers and I relished the demands it made on me in terms of flexibility, intuition, sensitivity and skill. But now, more controversy…

Tomorrow night the tenor Ian Bostridge will be giving a recital with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. This event promped an article in the LA Times on Sunday by David Mermelstein discussing the increasingly common practice of piano solo virtuosi performing chamber music and art song recitals. Can solo virtuosi really do as well as an experienced accompanist in such a situation? Graham Johnson, interviewed in the article, was up in arms: “If a solo pianist can do my job simply by opening up the score and playing the music better than me without thinking, then why should people take the trouble to study accompanying?… I get upset about this issue because it insultingly supposes that the art to which I have given my life is something anyone who is a good pianist can do. No, the implication is it can be done better by a soloist because virtuosity governs all.”

Johnson is extremely successful internationally as an art song pianist, yet to me these comments betray a certain nervousness. Maybe he is worried that a solo pianist really might do just as well… or at least be perceived in that way by a majority of the audience. Personally, I don’t believe that most piano soloists could do as well as a professional accompanist as they simply haven’t mastered the art of listening so astutely to the singer or instrumentalist, tuning to the breathing, the placing of chords in relation to the consonants or the bowing, understanding the shades of meaning and color of the poetry… yet they certainly might tackle the technical difficulties with more ease.

Murmelstein goes on to mention the great Fischer-Dieskau and how he famously worked not only with professional accompanists but also many soloists. “No one did more to focus the spotlight on the keyboard than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose name is virtually synonymous with Lieder singing and who in a 40-odd-year career ending in 1992 worked with players as diverse as Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Sviatoslav Richter and Leonard Bernstein….Speaking from his home, Brendel [said]…”The unequal partner is something of the past thanks to Fischer-Dieskau…Onstage… there was the ideal give and take. You knew that he listened to you as much as you listened to him.”
While many were appreciative, some much preferred a professional accompanist. I certainly was blown away by Hartmut Holl’s work, as was the New York based arts writer, Benjamin Ivry. In an online article about Holl written in 2000, Ivry had this to say:

“In the early 1980s Holl was taken on as official accompanist for the famous baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the most recorded singer in history, with over one thousand LP-length recordings to his credit. For 14 years, Holl accompanied Fischer-Dieskau in what many see now as an Indian summer of Fischer-Dieskau’s long career. He was sometimes tempted to perform and record with pianists who were not full masters of the accompanist’s art, like Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and most disastrously Vladimir Horowitz. But for the most part, it was Holl’s combination of musical sensitivity with a capacity for drama and spiky originality when the song called for it, that grace the baritone’s last recordings.”
And so the debate continues…